By Shari Berman
July 26, 2008
Shabbat Shalom! Thank you so much for inviting me to share d’vrei Torah, words of Torah, with you today. This week’s parshah is Mattot, Numbers 30:2-32:42. Chapters 31-32 speaks of a battle against the Midianites, while chapter 30 which speaks of vows, has much more relevance for us today.
Judaism’s foundation is based on words. God created the world with words. God entered into a covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai with words. God spoke to and called upon his prophets with words. The rabbis replaced sacrifices with prayer words. Shalom Auslander, in his new book, Foreskin’s Lament, writes, “For the People of the Book, words, being the stuff of books, have weight. Words have consequences.” Parents tell their children, “use your words.” We no longer teach the phrase “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never harm me,” because we know that words can be harmful. We learn from our studies of the Holocaust that it is through words, both written propaganda as well as powerful oration, that a whole nation was taught bigotry and anti-Semitism. We are taught to choose our words carefully; not to say bad words; and not to speak falsely against another.
Parshah Mattot speaks specifically about words we say to God in the form of a vow. What constitutes a vow?
In the Plaut commentary of the Tanach, we learn that neder l’Adonai (30:3) “to voweth a vow to the Lord”: denotes a solemn promise to consecrate something to God, or do something in God’s service or God’s honor. In other words, I might say, “God, I vow to donate more money to the synagogue.” But a vow is much stronger than this. In the Torah, just as today, a vow is usually made in a time of distress, and its motive is the desire to secure Divine help. Therefore, the vow I just stated might actually be, “God, I vow to donate more money to the synagogue, if you cure me or my family member.” In other words, when we need God’s help the most, we vow whatever we can to get it. There are several times vows are made in the Bible. Does anyone know of an example?
First, in Genesis 28:20, Jacob vows that God will be his God if he is protected on his journey to the land of Haran. He has every reason to be afraid. His brother Esau may come after him and try to kill him for stealing the birthright! So he vows his eternal devotion to the Lord for protection. God does protect him throughout his lifetime and Jacob is eternally loyal. Another example from the Bible comes in 1 Samuel 1:9-11: Hannah vows to God that should he grant her a child, she will dedicate the child to the Lord. God does in fact help Hannah have a son and upon his weaning, Hannah brings her son Samuel to Eli to serve the Lord as she vowed she would. Samuel ultimately grows up to be a great prophet. A vow is a promise to God of the highest order.
People today, when they are nervous or scared or under distress, still make vows. When facing death or any serious crisis, it is natural to turn to God for protection and help. The problem is, what if it seems as if God doesn’t help? What if the thing you asked for doesn’t happen? When that happens, people decide they don’t like God, they become angry with God, or they just stop believing in God altogether. A dear friend of mine lost her mother to cancer. She told me that she made a vow with God asking for a cure for her mom. When her mother died, she was angry and sad. But she didn’t lose her faith. She realized that she needed to understand her relationship with God differently. She didn’t blame God for taking her mother. She thanked God for the time she had with her, and for the strength God gave her to get through the crisis.
But, I wonder, when God does come through, when the crisis is averted, do we keep the vows we made when we were afraid and when the outcome was unknown?
There is a third and very important story in the Bible regarding the making of a vow. In Judges chapter 11:30 where we read the difficult narrative of Jephtah who makes the following vow to the Lord: He says, “If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.” Upon securing his victory against the Ammonites, we read in v. 34, “Jephtah arrives at his home and there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance!” This should have been a gleeful, warm, celebratory reunion, but the text tells us, “Jephtah rents his clothes upon seeing her and tells her, ‘Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler! For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract.’” Jephtah’s daughter, and that is how she remains known as her name is never given, replies to her father, “You have uttered a vow to the Lord, do to me as you have vowed, seeing that the Lord has vindicated you against your enemies, the Ammonites.” And, ultimately, Jephtah’s daughter is offered as a sacrifice to the Lord.
The message is clear: To quote Reuven Hammer, “Vows are a serious subject within Judaism. Specific laws in the Torah pertain to them, and the rabbinic writings devote whole tractates to them.” (Hammer) It seems that vows are so serious and so important, that they even override the rule against human sacrifice as in the story of Jephtah’s daughter. A thousand years after the biblical narrative, the rabbis of the Talmud will make rules that render vows such as Jephtah’s impossible to fulfill. The rabbis will be specific about certain types of vows such as “incentive vows, exaggeration vows, erroneous vows and vows made under pressure” and will declare all of them null and void. (M. Nedarim 3.1). (Hammer, Reuven, p. 114) Had Jephtah lived during the time of the sages, he may have been able to claim that his vow was made under the pressure of war and his daughter may have been saved. But the significance of a vow remains unchanged.
As I was discussing the question of vows back home with my friends, two interesting questions arose. First, what is the difference between a vow and an obligation? Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains that “a commandment is an order levied upon one by a superior. A vow is a personal statement of intent.” (p. 45) We are obligated to keep all the mitzvot and all the vows that we make. However, Judaism makes a distinction between the 613 mitzvot, commandments, and vows. The mitzvot are the obligations of all Jews. They are in a sense, the basic requirements for living a holy Jewish life; they are the blueprint, if you will, to those actions and attitudes God believes will sanctify our lives. Judaism understands that we may not be perfect in our observance of these commandments, but asks us to continually strive to understand their value in our daily lives. They are there for us always to study, practice, and enjoy. But our vows are unique individual experiences. They come from our heart, from a place of emotion. We make vows when we feel we need to connect with God for a specific purpose. While we are of course obligated to keep our vows, their high status comes from within us, from our sense of direct communication with God, and with a sense of urgency unique to our particular situation.
The other question that arose relates to the adage: actions speak louder than words. A person vows to do something and then does it – which is of higher status: the action or the vow? This reminds me of the debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon in the Talmud (tractate Kiddushin 40b) regarding which is more important – the study of Torah or the fulfillment of its commandments? Tarfon believes that actions are of greater importance. Akiva’s position states that the study of the words is more important because study leads to action and because the words guide us as to which actions to take. When we understand through study how God wishes us to behave in the world, then we can go forth and do as we are obligated with clarity and purpose. When we state a vow, the words come first, the action follows.
Our vows to God are sacred words. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book Worldmask teaches, “Words are seminal; their energy is powerful enough to build a deep connection between the speaker and the one who listens.” Our relationship with God grows when we speak and then do what we vow to do. It is a sign of our trust in God, our faith in God, and our commitment to God. Words have energy. When we pray to God with kavanah, with all of our intention and energy, we create a connection with God.
Vows also have the power to connect people. It is no surprise to me, that when a man and a woman marry, we speak of wedding vows, not wedding promises, or wedding obligations. A deep connection is made between a man and a woman; their relationship grows through their continued and shared commitment to the vows they make. Their vows symbolize their trust in each other, their faith in each other, and their love for each other. As scholar Peter Oachs explains, “Truth is fidelity to one’s word, keeping promises, saying with the lips what one says with one’s heart . . . Truth is the bond of trust between persons and between God and humanity. (Peter Ochs, ‘Truth,’ Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, New York: Scribners, 1987.)
Parshah Mattot reminds us that all of us, men and women, are obligated to the vows we make. Vows are sacred promises to God, to our loved ones, and to ourselves. When we make a vow, it is a serious heart-felt moment in our lives that has tremendous potential for joy, sanctification, and an opportunity to connect with God on a very deep level. Todah Rabbah, thank you, and Shabbat Shalom!